Have you ever awkwardly stood around at a party, wanting to chat, but not knowing how to break the ice? You could try a classic conversation starter. "Are you enjoying the party?" "Lovely weather, isn't it?" Or you could use a conversation starter app, such as Gather or Party Qs. However, our research suggests that one of the best ways to break the ice with a stranger is by mentioning their Taylor Swift t-shirt, Eagles hat, or (if you are at their house) souvenir snow globe. Well, you don't have to mention those things specifically, but the point is: talk to them about an object they are choosing to display.

This is what we found in several studies on everyday conversations with strangers. In one study, we asked college students to go up to a stranger—a random person they encountered at the bus stop, in line at Starbucks, or anywhere else—and start a conversation. Some participants were told to find a stranger wearing a plain t-shirt to talk to. But other participants were told to find a stranger wearing a t-shirt that showcased the stranger's interests or experiences (like a Taylor Swift shirt or a shirt from an exotic location) and talk to them. We let our participants start the conversation with the stranger however they liked.

When the stranger was wearing self-expressive clothing, people were much more likely to mention the shirt than if it was just a plain t-shirt. In addition, they ended up having deeper, more enjoyable conversations with someone wearing a self-expressive shirt than with someone in a plain shirt.

So, we proved it! Mentioning someone's clothing improves conversation. Not necessarily, though. Maybe people who choose to wear self-expressive shirts are just more extroverted and fun to talk to than people who wear plain shirts. To rule out this possibility, we had a third group of participants who approached someone wearing a self-expressive shirt but did not mention it. These participants did not have very good conversations. It's not the shirt that makes the stranger more engaging, it's actually mentioning the shirt as a conversation starter.

In a follow-up study, we asked people to start a conversation with someone wearing a hat, necklace, or other piece of clothing that might say something about them. Half the participants were told to start the conversation by mentioning that item, and the other half were told to start the conversation by talking about the weather. As we predicted, people who started the conversation by talking about the person's clothes had better conversations than people who started by talking about the weather.

Why does mentioning objects lead to good conversations? These studies found that breaking the ice by mentioning an object allows the conversation to get more personal—and more interesting—fast. It lets you skip over the boring stuff that makes up most introductions and get to the fun topics right away. Most people would probably rather talk about a concert than the weather, but randomly asking a stranger if they have been to any concerts lately breaks social norms and might invite some awkward stammering. However, if that stranger is wearing a t-shirt from Taylor Swift's Eras tour, it instantly becomes much less awkward. The shirt suggests that person probably has been to a concert this year, and their choice to wear it in public suggests they might be happy to talk about it.  

But don't take this to mean you should mention just any object you notice. Our research showed that mentioning items that reveal something you have in common with the person displaying the item is a great way to begin. If you notice that your neighbor's car has a bumper sticker from your favorite national park, or they have a camera like the one in your photography studio, those would be good conversation topics. If you don't see anything hinting at something you have in common, a good alternative is mentioning an item you think is unique. Maybe you have never seen a Snoopy painting that is quite that vivid or haven't been to a 6 AM dance party like the one in their framed photo, but mentioning these unique items can lead to enjoyable conversations. So even if the participants in our first study had mentioned a stranger's plain t-shirt, it probably wouldn't have pushed the conversation too far.

The next time you are looking at a sea of people wondering whether you should get another canapé or slink out the back door, see if you can find someone who is wearing something unique or something that suggests you might have something in common with them and walk right up to them and mention it. You will likely be rewarded with a surprisingly good, deep conversation and potentially a new friend.

For Further Reading

Wiener, H.J.D., Bettman, J.R. & Luce, M.F. (2023) "Product-facilitated conversations: The role of products in facilitating conversation," advance online publication at Journal of Consumer Psychology https://doi.org/10.1002/jcpy.1387

Hillary Wiener is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Albany and studies the role of conversation as it relates to advertising, sales, and word of mouth.